But in the case of these war survivors, this strain was compounded many times over by the fact that the names appearing in the documents were theirs, belonging to their friends, their acquaintances, their schoolmates, their loved ones. Some workers even learned from the documents, for the first time, how a close relative was killed. “In there, I found out how my brother had died,” Dolores told me. “I had never known. And still today in my house, my mother, my siblings, and I, we can’t talk about our brother. We’ve been living with this for twenty years, and we still need to learn how to talk about him as he was… I was one of the lucky ones, to have been able to learn this.”
The butterfly rose in flight, made two turns over the head of the statue and went away. I need to tell you one thing, he said rapidly, as if he were talking to the butterfly, I need to tell you one thing, it’s urgent. The butterfly disappeared beyond the trees and he lowered his voice. I know everything about you, I know everything about your life, day by day, everything: your women, your ideas, your friends, your travels, even your nights and all your little secrets, including the tiniest: everything. He realized he was sweating. He took a breath. Of myself, on the other hand, I didn’t know anything, I thought I knew everything and I knew nothing.
- Guernica: What is your writing routine?
- Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor: In my perfect imagination, with stern discipline I rise with the first bird, salute the dawn, have a healthy breakfast of fruits, wander over to my faux-oak desk, tap the On button on my Macbook Air, acknowledge the muse, and skip into the world where the story flows over the day and into the night.
- The truth, and nothing but the truth, is that dawn begins with a wrestling match with my soul and a systematic rejection of all the other useful possibilities a day offers. I make obeisance to the story, its characters, and the muse with burnt offerings. I do need to find inner tranquillity and get into a “zone” before I switch on the computer to work on a story. Only after this do I enter the story world, where I meet the characters and, together, we work through the day and night. When conditions are right, it is a simple thing to forget that time and food exist. If life’s other offerings prove more tantalizing, I succumb to temptation and go gallivanting and do all sorts of other meaningful things in the manner of most professional procrastinators.
My own memories start on a boat. I was small enough that Daddy cut me down a rod, I think, though it might even just have been a stick with some twine tied to it. Whichever it was, it did the trick: I went to cast my line and I hooked Daddy’s lower lip with my lure. The metal was speared completely through the flesh. Blood spilled out of Daddy’s mouth, the silver dangle of the lure flashing in the sun. I remember that I cried when he yelled at me, but he says that I’ve got the story wrong, that it was the other way around, that he yelled at me because I cried, and that sounds about right for my father.
There is no word for emergency after the body
wilts. Creeping willow, pillowsheet, last lamp
left lit / before the blizzard’s heart beats out—
the ghost who walks west from the lightning
field walks above the frost.
Disclosed secrets, interrupted silences, fabricated identities, and the (im)possiblity of truth-telling animate the new issue of Guernica.
Rabih Alameddine, the Lebanese-American author who disdains hyphens, tells Dwyer Murphy that when we construct anything like the truth of another culture from the work of one author “we’re in deep shit.”
Gary Shteyngart talks with Michael Hafford about what it was like to step out from behind the distraction of humor in his new memoir, Little Failure. “You realize that whatever myths you had built up about yourself overcoming adversity and turning into a great person are not exactly true.”
In an excerpt from Kirsten Weld’s Paper Cadavers, Guatemalans work to excavate the “largest collection of secret state documents in Latin American history.” Volunteers sort through decaying mountains of paperwork after four decades of silence and civil war to learn how their friends and loved ones were “disappeared.”
Author Yvonne Adhiambo Owuor, too, speaks of memory and destructive silence, which has kept her native Kenya from reckoning with its past. “Even if we want to eradicate our ghosts, our dead, our murdered, somebody remembers,” she tells Michael Halmshaw.
From Polish director Karolina Breguła comes The Offence, a film about the “paradoxical” liberties of censorship in a Hungarian town. Poets Simon Perchik and Sarah Crossland look to the body for answers.
Plus new fiction from Alexi Zentner that mines the familial landscape of King Lear from a lobster boat in the cold waters off New England. And, translated into English for the first time, Antonio Tabucchi’s story of an aging spy who ambles through his life’s love, loss, and deception.
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- Guernica: What do you mean when you say that Americans don’t engage with the world?
- Rabih Alameddine: We pick one writer from every country and think that’s what that literature is. Colombia—Gabriel García Márquez—yay! Chile—Roberto Bolaño—yay! One writer from each country begins to represent an entire worldview. I should tell you now, I represent all Lebanese. No—all Arabs. Read my books and you’ll understand what all Arabs are like. [a thoughtful pause] If I am supposed to represent the Arabs, we’re in deep shit.
Inspired by Polish writer Witold Gombrowicz’s 1937 novel Ferdydurke, in which obsession with youth and the new takes an absurd and unnatural form, The Offence is a short story in the form of a film. The narrative follows a chorus of characters in a provincial Hungarian town, obsessed with tradition and fearful of the unknown. The unassuming hero of the story is a town official who decides to rescue his fellow citizens from their backwardness by an unusual method: with an uncanny understanding of the human desire for perversion, he forces progress through unnecessary prohibitions and restrictions that he knows will be broken. The film is about the paradoxically liberating effects of censorship, capable of attuning society to its needs and desires.
Yes, if he thought about it he was hungry, that morning he’d had only an Italian cappuccino, maybe because the evening before he’d gone overboard. He’d eaten oysters at the Paris Bar, at this point he went to the Paris Bar almost every evening, when he wasn’t alternating with other chic restaurants. Don’t you get it, knucklehead, he murmured, you acted like a Franciscan your whole life, I on the other hand have a ball at chic restaurants, I eat oysters every night, and you know why?, because we aren’t eternal, my dear, you said so yourself, and so it’s worth eating oysters.
As far as I’m concerned, if you’re not doing it honestly, then why are you writing a memoir? Stick to fiction.